Sola Gracia and the Universalists

July 19, 2006

StevenR in the comments for the previous post “Why did the Universalist Church of America fail?” suggests some key reasons why the Universalist General Convention is no more, and why its successor the Unitarian Universalist Association seems to have so little of the old Universalist thought alive in it.

Steven points out what look to me to be two separate thoughts – that very early on the Universalists adopted a very low (unitarian) Christology, and that their final decline corresponded with the failure of Victorian optimism in the chaos of the first half of the 20C.

I want to think about another aspect.

As far as I can see, the very earliest Universalists, such as John Murray, were essentially universalist calvinists. That is (in modern terms), they believed in the inherent brokenness of humanity, our inability to perfect ourselves, and that God (through Jesus) has chosen to save us (heal, perfect, bring us to him in Heaven) against our own desire to remain in our evil ways. They probably wouldn’t have expressed it that way, but I don’t think I’m doing too much damage to their system. You could explain John Murray and James Relly’s beliefs to a Calvinist of the time by saying “The Elect is Everyone”.

Now I don’t yet have a firm grasp on how much of this was changed by Hosea Ballou. Dan Harper from Yet Another Unitarian Universalist is putting Hosea’s masterwork Treatise on Atonement online, but it’s not there yet. But I don’t get the impression that Hosea intended to change the basic outline.

Somewhere, however, in the decades following, the message that we were incapable of saving ourselves got lost. (Interestingly, the one thing we cannot conceivably do is give ourselves life after death; which is the one topic which increasingly seems to be shied away from).

So “God has, in his grace, saved me, a worthless sinner” became, “God has saved me because he thinks me worthy of being saved” became, “God has saved me because I am inherently worthy of being saved” became a stand alone belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Is this progression inherent in unitarian beliefs? If so, why? It is not immediately obvious why it should be so; certainly I don’t see that that was the intent.

If not, then why the progression?

One thing to consider is that the progression parallels the historical fate of the calvinist/presbyterian idea of sola gracia, grace alone. Key aspects of this idea were that we are incapable of saving ourselves, we don’t deserve to be saved, but that God will graciously choose to save us despite ourselves.

The early Calvinists went to great pains to emphasise that we were not capable of saving ourselves, employing the strongest language they could find – the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, declares that we “are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil”.

Today there are more TULIP Calvinists around than Universalists, but nevertheless the vast, vast majority of Christians are functionally if not theoretically Arminian/Pelagian/Wesleyan etc. From the Roman Catholic Church to Jack Chick, there is an almost universally held belief that we must choose God to be saved by him; and that God values our own choice and free will so much that he will not (or can not) interfere with it.

The earliest Universalists held to this Calvinist doctrine of election in one of its most extreme forms – everyone is saved, whether they want it or not; if the much larger and mainstream Calvinist denominations, the Presbyterian Churches of America, Canada, Scotland and England could not hold on to this doctrine then what chance did the Universalists have?

Is it an inherently difficult doctrine to hold on to? Especially in the face of the overwhelming modern belief in own own powers of choice, and the 19C Victorian belief in the limitless power of our minds and intellects to build a glorious future?

Can we conceive of a true universalism without it?

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One Response to “Sola Gracia and the Universalists”

  1. Bill Baar Says:

    The earliest Universalists held to this Calvinist doctrine of election in one of its most extreme forms – everyone is saved, whether they want it or not; if the much larger and mainstream Calvinist denominations, the Presbyterian Churches of America, Canada, Scotland and England could not hold on to this doctrine then what chance did the Universalists have?

    Excellant post… very helpful.


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